It's 1968 on display: A very turbulent year

STEPHANIE AARONSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER A room in the "1968" exhibit, which takes a month-by-month look at the year, displays beanbag chairs and televisions playing then-popular shows.
STEPHANIE AARONSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER A room in the "1968" exhibit, which takes a month-by-month look at the year, displays beanbag chairs and televisions playing then-popular shows.
Posted: June 14, 2013

YOU CAN make the argument that any year between 1963 and 1969 was pivotal in our nation's history. For instance, '63 saw the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.-led march on Washington and, of course, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The Beatles arrived (and "American Bandstand" left Philly for Hollywood) in 1964, '65 marked the beginning of years of race riots and '69 included Woodstock and the Apollo 11 moon landing. But for sheer breadth and scope of epochal events - not to mention horror - 1968 has no rival. If ever a year changed America forever, it was '68.

Not for nothing did "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner set the series' sixth and current season in that cursed year. "As far as I can tell, 1968 is a year about change, about revolution, about violence, about people turning inward as community breaks down," he told WHYY-FM's Terry Gross on a recent episode of "Fresh Air."

Or as Brian Horrigan explained, "It seemed like everything not nailed down landed in 1968. It was the worst year of the Vietnam War [casualtywise], the King assassination, the Robert F. Kennedy assassination, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

"It was a transformative election year, the year that Richard Nixon won [the presidency] and George Wallace won five [primary elections] - that's never been heard of before. Plus, the music and movies and television shows - the cultural explosion of the '60s culminated in 1968. It felt like the year everything changed."

While Weiner has woven the game-changing events of that year into his program's narrative, Horrigan, exhibit curator at Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, has brought those 12 months to life with "The 1968 Exhibit," a multimedia examination of the serious and frivolous elements that made the year a watershed time in America. It opens today and runs through Sept. 2 at the National Constitution Center.

Because it seemed back then that each day brought with it some major - often cataclysmic - occurrence, "1968" is divided not by subject, but by month.

Visitors begin their time-travel in a simulation of a typical American living room of the period, complete with an RCA Victor color TV on which runs a video loop of legendary CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite's investigation of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam - broadcasts generally regarded as turning public opinion against the war.

Somewhat jarringly, just to the right of the living room is an actual Bell UH-1H - or "Huey" - medical helicopter. The juxtaposition is intentional. Just like Cronkite's newscasts, the craft is symbolic of how, for the first time, war was literally brought into American homes on a daily basis, thanks to television.

From there, visitors encounter the first of 12 monthly displays. Although only a few events are showcased, each exhibit includes a dateline that pinpoints notable, if sometimes obscure, events. Example: On Sept. 30, a comic strip called "Bull Tales" debuted in the Yale Daily News. Two years later, when it received national syndication, the name was changed to "Doonesbury."

The monthly displays tend to spotlight major events like the King and Kennedy killings and the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, but several are dedicated to less-date-specific subjects such as the various sociopolitical movements - women, blacks, Latinos - that grabbed headlines that year. The infamous "bra-burning" protest at the 1968 Miss America Pageant is part of the lesson offered on the "women's lib" movement.

To relieve the overriding seriousness of the exhibit, there are three "lounges" focusing on the era's pop culture: fashion, TV/movies and music. The latter features an interactive video game that tests visitors' knowledge of the music of that year. There is also a station at which folks are invited to create their own 1968-style album cover.

Baby boomers are sure to view "1968" through the prism of nostalgia, while younger people will likely groove to the psychedelic-inspired fashions of the day and the pop-media displays. But Horrigan, who turned 18 in 1968, pointed out there are lessons to be gleaned from the exhibit.

"A lot of people look back on that year and see resonance today," he said, "especially in the politics of polarization we've seen in the last two election cycles, which we're living with right now; the politics of extreme division.

"That really seems to have come out of that year - a year of 'wedge issues' and Nixon's famous 'Southern strategy' of getting disaffected whites to vote for a Republican candidate. Just to look at the election map of 1968 is astounding in the way things changed and the way they continued to change. 1968 feels familiar. You'll see things in the exhibit that remind you of what's happening today."


Constitution Center, 525 Arch St., 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday, $14.50 (adults), $13 (65 and older), $13 (students, ages 13-18), $12 (ages 4-12), current military personnel admitted free, 215-409-6600, constitutioncenter.org.


On Twitter: @chuckdarrow

Blog: philly.com/Casinotes

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